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Chancellor by fate, professor by choice
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Chancellor by fate, professor by choice
William Aycock recalls remarkable life, career




It is not uncommon for members of the bar to reflect upon their days in law school, often reminiscing about professors who made a profound impact on their legal careers.

One such lawyer, Charles P. Farris Jr. of Wilson, recently took such a trip down memory lane. Only Farris did more than simply conjure up a few memories of his mentor, Dr. William Brantley Aycock, chancellor emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He looked him up.

As it turned out, Aycock welcomed the visit. He even agreed to have the conversation recorded for publication in North Carolina Lawyer magazine. After all, how many chances does one get to sit down with a living legend and hear firsthand accounts of history that would be of interest to any North Carolinian, regardless of whether or where he went to law school?

For the record, Aycock is a 1936 graduate of North Carolina State University and a 1948 graduate of the University of North Carolina School of Law. In the interim, he served with distinction in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Aycock retired as the Kenan professor of law in 1985, the same year in which he became the third recipient of the Liberty Bell Award, presented annually on behalf of the North Carolina Bar Association by the Young Lawyers Division in conjunction with Law Day.

As for the rest of the story, Aycock tells it better than anyone could ever hope to write it. Please continue reading as Charlie Farris interviews "the man who hired Dean Smith.”

Farris: How are you doing, Chancellor Aycock?

Aycock: It’s hard to say from day to day; I am just glad to be here. Considering all the factors, considering I am 98 years old, I’m good.

Farris: You grew up in Lucama, which isn’t far from the Charles B. Aycock birthplace. Were you related to Governor Aycock?

Aycock: It was like this — there were two brothers. He came from one of those brothers and my family came from the other brother. I guess we would be 32nd cousins or something like that.

Farris: What do you recall about growing up in Lucama?

Aycock: I lived there through first grade. My father was a merchant at that time. Aycock-Corbett Company is what it was called. I went through the first grade there and then we moved to Selma, where my mother and father lived until the end of their life, and all of the children grew up there.

Lucama was said to me at that time to be nine miles from Wilson. I could not prove it now because it was so long ago, but as a kid I was told the first paved road in North Carolina was paved to Wilson for all of the tobacco warehouses. There were nine of them at the time. I knew Wilson. That’s where my father took us to have our tonsils taken out.

Farris: So you stayed in Selma through high school?

Aycock: Yes. I graduated there in 1932 and went to State. I graduated in 1936 and enjoyed having gone there. It is quite interesting, how many things I picked up there that affected my life. For instance, State was a land grant school, and they had ROTC. Everybody had to take it as a freshman or sophomore, and after that you had to be elected to be chosen for your junior or senior year. They wanted you to be officers in the group to train the next year’s freshmen and sophomores. I took the four-year route and thoroughly enjoyed it; it had a lot to do with getting a commission as a lieutenant. When they dropped the bombs on Pearl Harbor I was gone, because I was a reserve lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

Farris: Where did you go after you graduated from State?

Aycock: What I wanted to do was go to law school. My daddy at 40 years old had gone to Wake Forest. In those years you didn’t have to go to law school anywhere. All you had to do was take the bar before the Supreme Court. If you pass it, by studying with a lawyer or however you got your information, you went to work. So he got to be a lawyer when he was over 40 years old. I was very fond of my father. After a while he was what they called a Recorders Court judge, which is like the District Court judge today, only it was countywide. I went to court and there were 30-some-odd lawyers in the county, most of them in Smithfield. They let me sit with the lawyers, so I went to court every time I had a chance.

Farris: But you didn’t proceed to law school right away?

Aycock: When I was getting ready to go to law school, my father had a stroke. It was very serious. I hoped he would recover, so I went over to Carolina as soon as I finished at State and I got a master’s degree in history. My father still he had not gotten any better, so I realized I’d better go to work if I wanted to get something to eat somewhere.

I had gotten an "A” teaching certificate at State, and taught school out at Wakelon (Wake County). I lived in what they called a teacherage out in the country. Hugh Lefler, who had been my history teacher at State, had moved to Carolina because of the consolidation between State and Carolina and the Women’s College (now UNC-G). After I got my master’s degree, I asked Dr. Lefler, who got the best professor award at State and Carolina, which doesn’t happen very often, if he would write a recommendation letter for me. I got a job in Greensboro at what they called the senior high school (now Grimsley). They had 2,300 students — all white students at that time. Dr. Lefler gave me a letter, which I didn’t open — I wasn’t supposed to. I gave it to Ben Smith who was the superintendent. He said, "You’ve got a good record, but I don’t know at this late date.” Well, I said, I want to be honest with you — I want to go to law school as soon as I can. "What I will do,” he said, "I will give you a job if you agree to stay two years.” And I said all right, I’ll do that.

And then this is something very interesting. Almost as fast as I started teaching, John Lane called me. He had been appointed with the influence of Mrs. Roosevelt to the new nationwide program, the National Youth Administration, which was designed to do what community colleges do today. They worked in sheet metal, metal shops, and actually built buildings. I had been president of the student body at State and he had been one of the heads at Carolina. He called over the phone and offered me a job. I said I can’t go, I promised to stay two years. Everything quieted down, and then before the second year he called me up and said I have another job. And I said the two years isn’t up. When two years had passed, I started teaching my third year there. I was in the middle of my third year when he called and said, "Bill, I tell you something now, this is the best job I have ever had to offer you and I am not going to offer you anymore.” I said two and a half years had gone by. I lived next door to Ben Smith, so I told him, and he said, "I understand.” There was a lot of difference between a year-round job with the federal administration and teaching school.

I left at the end of the first semester and went to join the federal organization. That’s where I met my wife. At the end of that year we got married on Oct. 24. I got married on my birthday so I wouldn’t forget it!

Farris: Wasn’t it about this time that you went into the service?

Aycock: That’s what I was getting ready to tell you. I told my wife (the former Grace Mewbern) that I had not gained any weight since I was at State. We had regular officers’ uniforms that we had bought, and I still had the uniform, so I told Grace let’s get ready for me to go somewhere. I got my orders to go to Fort McClellan, Ala., where they had a training center for draftees and people who volunteered. We were filling out trainees to replace people in the existing regiments and training people to help create new regiments. I wasn’t supposed to stay there but three months, but somehow I got along pretty good there and stayed three years.

Then I got a telegram from the Pentagon when the Germans had started that last big drive headed toward the channel. They didn’t know how many people they were going to lose, so they looked around and picked people like me. I was a lieutenant colonel by then. I had to report to the Pentagon and they put me on an airplane in a matter of just a few days. I was commanding a battalion over in Belgium. Our people at that time had been down in the south of Europe, but when they started the German drive north, they pulled our division, what became my division, the 87th Infantry. They pulled us out and put us in the Third Army. We went all the way across Europe. One of the last road signs I saw was "Czechoslovakia 3 miles.”

Farris: Is it true that as soon as the war ended, you came straight to law school?

Aycock: I drove all night, but I have to tell you this so it makes sense.

As soon as European war ended, they divided the troops we had over there into three groups. The three or four divisions that had recently arrived there were immediately put on ships and headed to the Pacific to get ready to attack Japan. Those who had been there long enough to wear out their equipment, which happened to be the 87th and a few others, were told to leave all of their equipment over in Europe and come back to Fort Benning to be re-equipped and then join the attack troops. The third group, which had been there the longest, including the 30th Division which included the North Carolina National Guard, they stayed over there in occupation. I had to come back. We all got on one of those quick-made merchant ships. My battalion landed in Boston, and we took the train down to Fort Benning, Georgia. As soon as the U.S. dropped the bombs over on Japan, I was immediately assigned to a group in Mississippi which was going to be the place where you went to get discharged.

So I went and finally got discharged. I got in my car and drove all night to get to Chapel Hill. I didn’t even know who the dean was. I went to the law school and told him I wanted to go to law school. Dean Wettach was this kind old gentleman, and he said, "Well, do you have a degree?” I said I have one at State and one at Carolina, and he says, "You’re in.” I said do you teach freshmen? He said yes, he taught torts. I said that’s fine, I know what a tort is because my daddy is a lawyer and a judge. I said, well, I already checked and the bookstore was not open on Saturday, can I borrow your book. He said yes and loaned me his book, and I asked him what the assignment was for Monday. He told me what it was, and I drove to Raleigh where my wife was at that time and started studying that night, and I never did catch up those two weeks I was late.

Farris: Didn’t you join the faculty before you finished law school?

Aycock: I couldn’t join the faculty but I had been elected to the faculty before I did graduate. One of our professors, in a course I was taking, and most of us were seniors, lost his voice. Completely! He couldn’t say "boo peep” anything. He was a neighbor of mine. He said, "Can you help me get through this?” And I said I certainly can. He had been practicing law up in New Jersey before he had heart trouble. They told him to stay out of the courtroom, so he turned to teaching. They wanted him to come to a warmer climate. He had beautiful notes and kept things well organized, so for six weeks all my colleagues were out there with the group. Like me, they were anxious to get through and didn’t want to mess around. It was a beautiful "operation of cooperation.” He sat out six weeks, and then his voice came back. Dean Brandeis got him a microphone, and I went back and sat down in the class and finished the course. I was satisfied (the professor) had talked to the group about me teaching, and I think Dean Wettach told me the faculty had voted me a teaching position. They did not meet at that time; they had already met.

Farris: When did you become chancellor?

Aycock: In 1957. I had taught nine years in the classroom when Chancellor House had retired, and that opened it up. I didn’t fix anything or express any personal interest in it. The president, Bill Friday, had been my classmate in law school. The deal was they had a committee and I happened to be teaching in Virginia as a visiting professor for a year. I never read anything about it or came down about it to meet the committee except one time. I just stayed up there until finally Bill Friday called and said he had gotten three names from the committee and he had to pick one of three, and one of the three happened to be me. I told him that I enjoyed administrative kind of work because a lot of my work in the Army, especially at Fort McClellan those three years working for the federal government, and even, believe it or not, as president of the student body at State I was an ex-officio member of the athletic council. I had experience observing modern college athletics — I keep going back to the experiences I had at State.

So I told Bill Friday that as a faculty member I had frequently suggested that there ought to be a way that teachers could be induced to taking a turn in administration. There were so many departments — 14 schools and colleges. They had passed a very nice arrangement where they picked some of the very best teachers to be department heads, and after four years they could continue or go back to teaching. If it came back to me, I would say the same rules would apply to the chancellor. I intended to be known as a teacher, not as administrator, so after I took a term as chancellor, I wanted to go back to teaching, and I did. I was chancellor from 1957 to 1964. Seven years — I did just right. It was good for the university and good for me.

Farris: And during that time, you hired Dean Smith?

Aycock: We got in a little trouble with the NCAA, and it turned out Frank McGuire said he didn’t do any of the things they had in there. And I said for your sake and for the university we have to get together a defense. And he said, "Let Dean Smith handle it.” So that is where I got to know him personally. To make a long story short, on one trip I took him with me to California. I learned about him as a person. I knew when Frank McGuire hired him he could have hired any young coach in the country because he had just won the national championship undefeated. I knew he knew X’s and O’s, no question about that. He worked with me and I found out he was the sort of fellow I got along with real well. His mother and daddy were both school teachers. He lived in a town, wasn’t a small town, but it wasn’t New York City.

Later on we got word that Frank McGuire was dickering with the pros. He was dickering with the Philadelphia Warriors, as they called them in those days. He finally decided to go, and came to my office and said, "I have come to resign. I am going to the Philadelphia Warriors.” He got to the door and I said to myself, "Lord have mercy, I hope he is not going to take Dean Smith.” I had already made up my mind; I had heard the rumors. I asked Frank McGuire if he knew where he was and McGuire said he’s right out there in my car. And I said send him in.

I never even let him sit down. I stood up to meet him. I said, Dean, do you want this job as head coach, and he said yes, and I said well, you’re it. Good bye. The next day I announced it. We didn’t get into any paperwork, no dickering, no search committee. And not a single person said that’s a good appointment. I figured I knew more about him than anybody, so why should we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars bringing people in?

Farris: Why did you give up being chancellor?

Aycock: Because I wanted to be a teacher. I taught 23 years after that.

Farris: How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

Aycock: The main thing is first you have to understand what you’re supposed to teach. You want to know that you give every student in the class, irrespective of the variation, the ability to grasp everything. Don’t just think I am going to teach this in the way that is most difficult to grasp that they are going to make it, because they are not here for fun. I might have succeeded somewhat in that but I don’t know how much.

Farris: What would you tell the lawyers of today?

Aycock: I would tell them you have to work hard.

Permission granted with attribution to North Carolina Lawyer magazine, a publication of the North Carolina Bar Association.
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